Suppose you have a son (or nephew, godson, or young friend) who is a professional and tomorrow he is offered a job with the promise to “earn between 30% and 70% less than other professionals of the same age and with the same years of education.” He is also told that “three out of six available job positions in this field do not have telephones and, on top of that, two of them have no access to a decent bathroom.” Would you recommend that he takes the job? Well, today more than three million people work under these conditions in Latin America: the elementary and secondary school teachers.
Moreover, as you most probably know, the public perception of teachers is not the best. Today talented young people of the new generations do not see primary or secondary school teaching as an option for professional development. Just as father Ugalde once said, “we have an schizophrenic society because we all want our kids to have the best people of the country teaching them, but none of us wants our kids to become the best teachers.”
Our societies are failing to attract the best people into the teaching profession. In many of our countries, the requirements for admission to study pedagogy are well below those needed to study engineering or medicine, just to name two examples. Colombia and Chile are two countries that have national standardized tests for high school graduation or college admission. These tests make it possible to compare the performance of students from all career tracks before they start college. This comparison revealed the following: the lowest scores in math and reading comprehension in the PSU in Chile or the Saber 11 in Colombia are those of students who enter into the teaching career.
These lax admission requirements, coupled with the expansion of high school graduation rates of recent decades, resulted in the enrollment numbers of pedagogy today being one of the highest at the tertiary education level. The National University Census of 2010 conducted in Peru shows that, after law, accounting, and administration, pedagogy is the major with the fourth highest number of students enrolled in the country. We are training more teachers than engineers and doctors. In addition, you for sure know of cases of young people who started to study education and then moved on to other professions. We are training many, but these students are not necessarily the best for the teaching profession.
To add complexity to the problem, it appears that many of the young people who study pedagogy do not end up working as teachers once they graduate. In a study I conducted with my colleague Alejandra Mizala, we documented that between 1997 and 2007, the teaching profession underwent little generational change. By 1997, 43% of secondary teachers in Latin America were younger than 35 years; a decade later that percentage dropped by almost ten points to 34%. In contrast, during the same period the percentage of other professionals within the same age range remained at 48%. Young people are less and less choosing to work as teachers.
How to change this situation? No doubt this is a complex problem. A comprehensive solution should define good ways to attract, select, train, develop, and retain good teachers. Meanwhile, I believe we will continue to fail, just to start, to attract the best. This will not be simply solved with improving wages or basic infrastructure conditions, as might be inferred from the opening paragraph of this note – that is for sure. Focus group studies have shown repeatedly that wages are not the only thing that motivates teachers. Other features related to the teaching profession appear to be more important: vocation of service, sense of social responsibility, the potential for transcendence, and the possibility of achieving a better work-family balance. However, it is clear that without improving the economic situation, it will be very difficult to think of a sustainable solution in the long run. We need more young people like the ones shown in the following two videos (only available in Spanish), who are motivated by the teaching profession.
[vsw id=”0YutLqZjNp0″ source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]
[vsw id=”l4CDipgimNs” source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]
The good news is that we are coming to a consensus about the importance of teachers to improve education in our region. More and more public policymakers, employers, parents, and, in general, civil society are organizing themselves and advocating for it. In Chile and Ecuador, we observe concrete steps being taken. And just in the last month, very clear voices in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Peru have been heard. But we need more. We need a growing commitment from everybody, including yours. What can we do?